06/26/2014 2:37PM

Hovdey: Salto Del Indio adds Chilean spice to Gold Cup


In an age of popular hybrids – from fairways to country roads – the Gold Cup at Santa Anita fits right in. It is not the Santa Anita Handicap, still the West’s most famous horse race, nor is it the Hollywood Gold Cup, now deceased. It is a brand-new 1 1/4-mile, main-track dirt race for ages 3 and up weighted on allowances and offered beneath the cloudless blue skies of a San Gabriel Valley summer afternoon. All comers from points east were welcome. None of them showed.

The division’s Southern California talent pool has become alarmingly shallow, which should give rise to wide-scale raiding. At the same time, the competition for top older horses is becoming intense. Some of the best of the bunch are still recovering from the $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap, run June 7. The Gold Cup at Santa Anita finds itself sandwiched between the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs two weeks ago and the $500,000 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park on July 5, while the $300,000 Cornhusker Handicap will be run at Prairie Meadows on Saturday evening and looks like easy pickings.

As part of Saturday’s four-stakes, 10-race program, the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita will attract considerably more fans than the Hollywood race used to but fewer than the Handicap, run in early March. In terms of national impact, its only hope for a headline above the fold rests with Game On Dude, who at age 7 – for those keeping score at home – is appearing in his 19th Grade 1 or Group 1 race in a career of 33 starts.

We all know the Rolling Stones can’t tour forever, which means there needs to be more talent waiting in the wings when Game On Dude eventually leaves the stage. Fury Kapcori and Imperative, both 4-year-olds, already have staked claims as recent stakes winners poaching on Game On Dude’s territory. They will be in the thick of things Saturday, while the solid older citizens Clubhouse Ride and Majestic Harbor can make noise when at their very best.

Adding spice to the lineup is a pair of runners from South America, both making their North American debuts. Lideris, actually bred in Kentucky, won Group 1 and 2 races in Peru, which is better known up here as the cradle of jockey talent like Edgar Prado, Rafael Bejarano, Jorge Chavez, and Alan Garcia. Salto Del Indio, from the stable of Mike Puype, did his running in Chile before being purchased last winter by the Little Red Feather syndicate. We’ll let Puype pick up the tale.

“He’s run in 15 dirt races and finished 1-2-3 in 13 of them,” the trainer began. “And in one of those, the jock fell off coming out of the gate, on a day he was favored in a pretty big stakes down there. The only time he ran a mile and a quarter, he won by nine, so he’s got to be extremely legit. The only question is, can his kind of class be transferred to good horses here like Game On Dude and Fury Kapcori, who run hard all the way.”

Chilean runners have made their mark with regularity in the United States, going back to Olhaverry, the gray streak who won the 1947 Santa Anita Handicap. Cougar II won the 1973 Handicap on his way to the U.S. Hall of Fame. Malek won the 1998 Santa Anita Handicap. Total Impact won the 2004 Hollywood Gold Cup. Babu beat Sword Dancer in the Brooklyn Handicap, while Lido Palace won the Whitney, and the Woodward twice. Tizna won the Santa Margarita twice. Miss Brio beat Winning Colors in the Maskette.

Puype has trained his fair share of South Americans, so he knows what to look for as they acclimate and what to expect in their early form. His most recent experience was with Calidoscopio, who won a spectacular version of the 2013 Brooklyn in the Belmont slop, but he was an older, physically mature horse who was giving away nothing in terms of hemispheric differences.

Salto Del Indio, on the other hand, is still officially a 3-year-old back home in Chile, where the Thoroughbred calendar starts July 1 and mares foal over the ensuing months of the South American spring. This is also the time of year that a South American horse, fresh to these latitudes, will begin to grow a winter coat. Salto Del Indio, a copper chestnut with a tapered blaze, has required a little extra rubbing to keep the hair down.

“He’s well made, well balanced, and sound,” Puype said. “What I liked about him on paper, when I was handicapping him for possible purchase, was that he’s resilient as hell. They ran him basically every month from the minute he started his career. And with the exception of his four turf races, which he obviously can’t handle, he ran his race every time.”

Brice Blanc will ride Salto Del Indio on Saturday at 121 pounds, three fewer than Game On Dude.

“I realize this is not necessarily the perfect scenario for his first race in this country,” Puype said. “But sometimes the game presents you with challenges. You try to meet them and try to move forward. Let’s face it, sooner or later Game On Dude won’t be top horse around here. It will be good to have a horse like ours who can maybe step up and have a say in these big races.”